Wernher von Braun and the American Rocket Program

In the previous post I focused on Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, the Chief Designer and brilliant engineer of the Soviet rocket program. In this post I want to talk about Wernher von Braun and his contribution to the American rocket and space program. My thinking is influenced by Cadbury’s book, SpaceRace, as well as my own work as a science educator and talks that I had over many years will a colleague and friend who was very close to the American space program.

As is well known, Werhner von Braun was the head of the German rocket program that produced the V-2 rocket which was used against England in WWII. von Braun was a Nazi and an officer in the German SS. He fled Nazi Germany at the end of the war with the help of American soldiers who were instructed to be on the look out for him. It was a harowing period of time because not only were the Americans looking for von Braun and his rocket scientists, but the Soviets were as well. von Braun and a number of his scientists were brought to the United States in 1945, and for years he and his team essentially spent a long time in the heat of Texas shooting off V-2 rockets that the Americans had recovered from von Braun’s rocket factory in Germany.

In 1951 von Braun and his team of rocket scientists arrived in Hunstville, Alabama, from this Southern Appalachian town, were eventually to lead America into the space age and to the moon. But it was a difficult path along the way.

Before NASA was established by Dwight Eisenhower, the Army, Navy and Air Force each had their own rocket development teams, and subsequently designed different rockets, e.g. the Army (led by von Braun’s team), the Redstone rocket; the Air Force, the Atlas rocket; and the Navy, the Vanguard rocket. So, three competing rocket development teams, each trying to access government funding, and each wanting to be the team that would be selected to launch the first American satellite.

The Navy’s rocket was selected to launch a satellite in connection with the International Geophysical Year, an event that American officials hoped would enable them to beat the Soviets. This was a huge disappointement to von Braun and his team. He would have to wait. Unfortunately, the Soviets, under the direction of Korolyov launched Sputnik I in October 1957. The Soviets launched a second satellite in November. The Navy’s attempt to launch the third satellite ended in a televised disaster.

According to Cadbury, upper level American military officers did not want von Braun and his German engineers to be the team that would launch the first American satellite. Hence, the Navy was chosen, as von Braun was working for the Army.

In 1956, both the American and the Soviet engineers were very close to having the capability to launch a satellite. Even though each side has engineers and scientists who understood the engineering and scientific concepts, they were at the mercy of their respective governments and upper echelon beauocrats. It was a frustrating time to von Braun on the Amercian side and Korolyov on the Soviet side. Who would over come the beauracracy to achieve the greatest technological feat of the time and put a satellite into orbit?

von Braun and his team knew that they had the rocket that would accompish the goal. The problem was they were Germans. They would have wait. Their time came after the Navy’s Vanguard rocket blew up on the launch pad (Kaputnik), and now von Braun and his team could use their Jupiter C to put America in the SpaceRace. On January 31, 1958, von Braun (who had been ordered to Washington to deal with the press) and his team launched the U.S. into space with Explorer I.

Just as the Soviets were confused as to what was their purpose in launching satellites, dogs, and humans into space, the Americans joined the club. It appeared that each side (at the demand of its leaders) was trying to outdo the other side. If the Soviets put up a satellite, the Americans responded with its own. Von Braun and Korolyev were visionaries, yet they were pawns in a race that was propelled by the Cold War. And, each side was developing nuclear weapons, and reliable Intercontinental missiles were the mainstay of funding for rocket research.

After the Explorer sucess, von Braun and his team went on to continue designing the Saturn V, the collosal rocket that was used in the Apollo program to take Americans to the moon.